The Crusaders claimed their ninth Super Rugby title with an impressive 37-18 win over the Lions on Saturday in Christchurch.
The defending champions, who started as red-hot favourites in Christchurch, produced an heroic defensive effort with Richie Mo’unga clinically engineering the points when chances arose.
The flyhalf had a hand in all the scoring moves as the Crusaders led 20-6 at half-time and then responded with a try after both of the Lions’ tries in the second period.
The South African visitors enjoyed nearly two-thirds of possession and territory throughout the final, but could not produce the variety of play to crack the Crusaders’ defence.
Six times when they tried their most potent weapon, the driving maul, they were pushed back.
The Crusaders outscored the Lions by four converted tries to two and Mo’unga added three penalties as Super Rugby’s dominant side stretched their winning streak to 15 matches.
The Lions have a reputation for being slow starters, as they were in last year’s final in Johannesburg when they trailed 25-3 at half-time and lost 25-17.
But a year on, they were fired up at the start and applied the early pressure.
Ruan Combrinck sliced through Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock on a 40-metre dash to the line, where the Lions pounded the Crusaders defence for 10 minutes.
But the best they could achieve was three points from an Elton Jantjies penalty.
The Crusaders struck back immediately with a penalty from Mo’unga, whose overhead pass then put Seta Tamanivalu over in the corner.
A raking Mo’unga kick and a Jantjies error won the Crusaders a five-metre scrum which led to Mo’unga’s second penalty before the fly-half took a high ball under pressure and launched a counter-attack that led to David Havili’s try.
After Jantjies and Mo’unga traded penalties either side of half-time, Cyle Brink scored the Lions’ first try to close the gap to 23-13.
While the Crusaders were primed to protect their line, they were also ready to strike back when necessary.
Mitchell Drummond went under the posts to reopen a 17-point margin, and when Malcolm Marx scored for the Lions – with the Crusaders’ Ryan Crotty in the sin bin – the home side effectively sealed the victory with a try to Scott Barrett.
Man of the match: The Crusaders forward pack were impressive. Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett were solid up front. For the Lions, Malcolm Marx along with Kwagga Smith and Franco Smith caused huge headaches for the defending champs. However, our nod goes to Crusaders Richie Mo’unga. The flyhalf made instrumental runs and his decision-making was vital for the side.
Tries: Tamanivalu, Havili, Drummond, Barrett
Cons: Mo’unga 4
Pens: Mo’unga 3
Tries: Brink, Marx
Pens: Jantjies 2
Yellow card: Ryan Crotty (Crusaders, 66 – cynical foul)
Crusaders: 15. David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 5 Sam Whitelock (captain), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Replacements: 16 Sam Anderson-Heather, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Braydon Ennor.
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrink, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Cyle Brink, 6 Albertus Smith, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Marvin Orie, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques Van Rooyen.
Replacements: 16 Corne Fourie, 17 Dylan Smith, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Marnus Schoeman, 21 Dillon Smit, 22 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 23 Howard Mnisi.
Referee: Angus Gardner
Assistant referees: Glen Jackson, Nic Berry
TMO: Shane McDermott